Image Credit: National Park Service of the United States of America via Public Domain -

Practicing Ethical Space with Dr. Leigh Welling


Nov 29, 2023


Minute Read


Ethical Space is a powerful framework for transforming relationships between Indigenous peoples and western science, but ultimately, creating Ethical Space depends on the individuals’ willingness to open their minds and invite others into the process. In this episode, Dr. Leigh Welling, Park Superintendent of Wind Cave National Park, joins Sarah Sunu, Gwen Bridge, and James Rattling Leaf to talk about her experiences in the Ethical Space workshop and how it shifted how she approaches her work with tribal nations. Listen to Part One of this series here.


This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

James Rattling Leaf: Hello, folks! My name is James Rattling Leaf Senior. I’m a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and I serve as a principle to the Wolakota Lab LLC, a global consulting group that serves as a guide to organizations who want to work more effectively with Indigenous people for a more equitable world. Happy to be part of this podcast. I’m looking forward to our discussion. Thank you.

Leigh Welling: Good afternoon. My name is Leigh Welling. I am here in the Northern Great Plains. This is where I was born and raised and now able to work in the southern part of the Black Hills. I am trained as an oceanographer, actually, but I am working as a superintendent of a national park here at Wind Cave National Park.

Gwen Bridge: Tanisi, my name is Gwen Bridge. I’m a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation from Northern Alberta, Canada. I do a lot of work in the interface between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Nations, working to develop agreements which reflect Indigenous principles, priorities, laws and implementation mechanisms. I’m also co-founder with James of the Indigenous Engagement Institute, really designed to bring forward a lot of the learnings and applications of Ethical Space-based discourse and agreements into our relationships.

Sarah Sunu: Hi! I’m Sarah Sanu, and I’m Associate Director of Trainings for COMPASS Science Communication. I’m really excited to be here talking with Gwen and James and Leigh today. I’m speaking with you from the City of Seattle, Washington on the Indigenous land and waters of Coast Salish peoples who have sovereign, inherent, and reserved treaty rights.

We’re here today to talk about Ethical Space and how it can be applied. You know, there’s the theory and the practice and then the application. And so we’re really excited to have Leigh Welling with us today to talk a little bit about your experiences, Leigh. So let’s start with, how did you come to learn about Ethical Space?

LW: I first came to hear about Ethical Space from my good friend and colleague, James Rattling Leaf. James was visiting me at Wind Cave National Park which is an important site for the Lakota people. It’s where the Lakota people emerged on the landscape. We had visited the cave. He brought his son. And we were talking a little bit afterward and just through some of the conversation that I was having with James about the importance of Wind Cave as a sacred site and the work that I was doing and wanting to do with the Tribal Nations that are traditionally associated with Wind Cave, James said, ‘have you ever heard about Ethical Space?’ And I said, ‘I know what the words mean, but I don’t think I know exactly what you’re talking about.’ And so he did some explaining, and then he said, ‘You know, I’m doing a workshop with my colleague, Gwen Bridge. It’s an invitation only. We’ve been planning it for a while, but let me see if I can get you an invitation to the training.’ So that’s how I heard about it and I was able to join.

SS: And we’re glad you were. And maybe let’s talk a little bit next about how your mindset has shifted. So what changed for you once you better understood what James was talking about when he used the term Ethical Space?

LW: I gained some additional perspective, I think, on understanding Western science as a knowledge system — one of many — and that Western science, you know, has a methodology that has certain assumptions. And even though I was trained, you know, on some of those, the more you get into a certain system or way of thinking, I think the more you forget what assumptions go into that, and you just sort of jump to a certain way of believing and you forget about asking some real fundamental questions. I think the work that I’ve done with Gwen and James and being in that workshop reminded me that the training I had received is a system, and it’s not the only way of looking at the world. And it has enabled me to ask questions about the information that we gather and the things that we think are true and the things that we think are relevant about say, park management or managing resources. You know, the questions of ‘whose science?’ you know, ‘whose knowledge?’ and what is it that you’re… what lens do you have and what are you valuing based on that? So it’s a perspective shift.

GB: I think, Leigh, that hearing what you’ve said about your experiences at the workshop is exactly what propelled us to really want to share our ideas coming out of an Indigenous perspective, an Indigenous lens, with the work. We’ve been able to really develop some frameworks which help bring forward what’s important to be understood through the Indigenous perspective to the conversation in a way that can be understood by those like yourselves who are trained in Western science and things like that. So it’s really great that, in essence, this workshop has achieved the ability within yourself, and with other participants, to cast light on some of those assumptions that we’re really bringing in and we don’t often question.

JRL: You know, we’re living in a time here in 2023 where there is so much interest now I think — and it’s real — in Indigenous peoples, Indigenous knowledge, and all things Indigenous. And I think when I hear Leigh Welling talk about, you know, her experiences with the Ethical Space workshop, you know, I think about, again, the relevance of this work. How, you know, we need good frameworks to address the good questions that we need to ask: what are the challenges, the problems, that we face as a society — let alone what Indigenous or non-Indigenous people are facing apart. I think that what I see about these workshops is, it gives us the opportunity for us to work together, to co-developed together, and to co-create together — innovation, new ideas, and hopefully solutions to the problems that we face. I think in putting together those good questions, I do think we think we need to be informed to ask good questions. And so both we work at that beginning level of understanding, but also we get to a point now where we begin to ask the good questions of ourselves: what are we doing, again, how we’re doing the work, and why does it matter?

SS: So we’d love to hear more about how you’ve applied Ethical Space in your work, Leigh. What have you kind of taken from the workshop and how are you using it?

LW: I think some of the key ways that we’ve begun to apply it in the work at Wind Cave National Park is to bring the tools into our consultation processes. Consultation is, you know, required by law on resource management issues and decision making, but it goes way beyond just the legal requirements. It really involves a broader sense of engagement and reaching out and working with people who have ties to the land and who, you know, who have lived there and been there a lot longer than the National Park Service. Even though Wind Cave is one of the oldest parks in the system — we’re the sixth oldest national park. It’s 120 years old. But we do tend to focus, or have tended to focus, a lot on the sort of park service history as opposed to the history of the people who have lived there for millennia. And what it’s taught me is, reminding me of being respectful, having patience with people, listening with your whole self. We tend to be very direct in our questions from a western science perspective, but the answer sometimes requires a broader perspective or it requires knowledge about other aspects of the environment or people’s family and people’s history. And the Ethical Space work has helped me to understand why that’s important, and what information is being shared — the richness of the stories that are being shared — and how those are relevant, you know, to what we sometimes think are the pertinent questions. But there’s more to it than what we ask initially and it’s teaching me to sort of understand that. And I’m working with my staff on it and understanding that people on staff are coming at this from different experiences themselves, not everybody’s in the same place, and it’s good to understand that and good to help people reflect on their own, you know, values and assumptions and try to get to this space in between.

GB: Thanks, Leigh, for sharing those experiences. It’s important to reflect upon the ideas that Ethical Space is based on about coming into the space where people can bring their whole selves—their feelings, their experiences, their history, their knowledge, their cultural norms about relating—to explore assumptions on both sides of the equation. In the case of the conversations that are happening around Wind Cave, they’re really around understanding deeply the spiritual significance of the area and understanding the mandate of the National Parks Service. And so those things are really happening in relationship, in the place — in situ, if you will — on a real-time basis. The work that Leigh’s doing within the region is really important because it’s bringing forth that knowledge and working together to implement some of that knowledge on the land base. And Leigh’s being able to demonstrate that it’s really important to approach those meetings with the openness of mind that allows us to get creative about implementing things.

JRL: For my thoughts, I want to applaud Leigh for her willingness and her courage to step out, you know, in her role as Park Superintendent to consider and invest her time and energy in the Ethical Space work. You know, as a tribal member from Rosebud who does have a vested interest in Wind Cave, I know that we’ve always worked to develop a better relationship with parks and those places that still have a cultural and spiritual significance to our people. And, if you know, the Lakota people, you know, we have a vast homeland that spans both on the Northern Great Plains and also into what is known as Canada. And so all those places still matter to us. And from my perspective I think the more that we can better understand each other as government and Tribal Nations — what would you say — American culture and Lakota culture. You know, finding those places where we can meet, where we can shake hands and we can begin to work together on addressing these really pressing problems that we face.

You know, we’re here… I’m in the Black Hills. I’m calling in from the Black Hills here, and, again, I’m just mindful about, you know, the issues of drought, the issue of heat and all those things that are affecting us, impacting us from climate change. And for me, I think about all those people also who are going through our traditional times, traditional ceremonial time of Sundance. So a lot of our people today and right now are doing their ceremonies on Sundance. And I think about them because, you know, they’re the ones that are living out our culture. And they’re always praying for a better future for all of us, not just Indian people and especially our children. I do think Ethical Space is needed. It’s a framework, again, that brings us together. And I think that through Ethical Space, I think we can make progress. But, again, it’s going to require the kind of leadership that I would say Leigh is exhibiting. And we would like to continue to work with Leigh and other parks who want to do this kind of work.

SS: What advice would you all share with someone who’s new to this framework? What would you recommend they think about or try as they’re starting to explore this space?

LW: I would say be willing to self-reflect – ask yourself what your own assumptions are. Try to uncover your own cultural, I’m gonna say, biases. Bias isn’t always a bad thing. It’s just a tendency that you have or a, you know, perspective that you were raised with — the things that you sort of take for granted in your own environment. And sometimes you can see it in simple ways that you interact with others. Sometimes we see it in our irritations with other people in public areas, you know. Try to understand what causes that or, you know, what’s at the basis of that. I think it’s really important to be self-reflective. For me, in order to give space for somebody else to have a perspective that’s different from mine, I don’t necessarily have to see things their way and I don’t even think that’s possible, but I have to respect the fact that they have a valid perspective that might be quite different. But, you know, there’s room for people to have different views without necessarily threatening our own. And I would just invite people to try to understand themselves, and then just be more patient. And listen more.

GB: I think that this Ethical Space is a framework. It’s a couple words and there’s some diagrams which we share about, you know, really creating the opportunity to have this dialogue. The onus and responsibility on each of the parties is something that, you know, I take very seriously — to bring forward what’s important to be understood, not make assumptions about, you know, not make assumptions that people understand already what’s important to be understood. As Leigh mentioned, we’re coming from these very different cultural constructs, right, where we assume that everyone not only thinks like us but actually embodies these different ways of being, because we don’t have a different frame of reference. So when we’re in Ethical Space we’re really trying to broaden our minds and open our minds up to understanding these different frames of reference for how we embody relationships, how we embody understanding, how we embody communication. And so when we’re in this space of trying to understand, we’re just really opening our mind, really excavating what we’re coming forward with in these assumptions, right.

And one other component is that Ethical Space is this framework for dialogue, right? It’s something that can’t be imposed. Oftentimes people find themselves sort of in relationship with others and moving through a process of deeper understanding and excavation of assumptions and can find that they can overlay the framework over their existing relations. What can’t be done is that you impose an Ethical Space framework on a set of relationships or on a desired relationship, right? What comes out is an agreement to be in Ethical Space. You can’t say, ‘okay now we’re in Ethical Space.’ It has to be this dialogue which results in Ethical Space.

LW: I really appreciate the comments that Gwen has made about you can’t, you know, say, ‘Well now we’re going to go into Ethical Space and now we’re gonna, this is how we’re gonna operate.’ That it’s more of an invitation. And it’s, you know, it’s a commitment to a way of dialogue or a way of approaching conversation and work, together. And really there’s this rich area in Indigenous knowledge and Traditional Ecological Knowledge that I think Ethical Space is so valuable to consider in those conversations. And one of the, I guess, main examples — again me as a scientist and as an ecologist and I think for other people that are trained in this discipline too — is just to realize that, you know, one of the assumptions that we often make that is written into ecology textbooks really, around wilderness especially, in some of these concepts that really exclude people from the landscape — that nature, you know, nature somehow exists in a pure state when people aren’t on the landscape. And I think that’s a very deeply held belief by a lot of people. And Ethical Space and the approach of that and really including other people and other people’s perceptions and, you know, realizing that there are other ways of looking at things, it’s going to change… it’s going to fundamentally change that assumption. And I find that really exciting, actually. Somebody might find it kind of scary and threatening. I mean, I can understand why. But I think it’s going to fundamentally shift our concepts of wilderness and our concepts of nature and how we solve some of those big ecological crises that Gwen mentioned. There’s real potential there.

JRL: If you’re interested in working with Indigenous people, working on projects that require Indigenous knowledge and really developing better and better Tribal engagement strategies, I would recommend taking this workshop. and I think that what you heard today is just these leaders talking about the work that they do — both at the conceptual level, you know, the research level/ theoretical level, but also at the practical level/on the ground level. And we need both. I think for me, you know, gathering the best available information to make decisions is critical. And so the question is, you know: what will that look like, what’s the process, what’s the methodology? And I do think that Ethical Space has and is that framework that we really need to commit to. And we can do that through this training, in this capacity development effort. And so I want to applaud and thank COMPASS as an organization working with us to promote this activity, but also to partner with us. And I think when you partner and when you commit, you know, good things can happen. And I think to the term about self-reflection and growth — yeah it does begin with us. It begins with our motivation and why we’re doing this, whether it’s a professional interest, personal interest. Nevertheless, you know, taking that first step to get involved, to learn more, and to really think deeply about how this can affect your work and your organization. So, again, I extend a hand to you to come into this Ethical Space training with us. And I believe that it’ll be a great opportunity. It’ll be a great experience. Wopila tanka. Thank you all very much.

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